Courtesy of Cornell University

November 15, 2022

Cornell Crowdfunding: A Chance To Help Cornell Sponsored Projects During This Season of Giving 

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November is often thought of as a time of giving, when family, friends and community members come together to celebrate Thanksgiving. At Cornell, it is also prime time for fundraising: the University’s Alumni Affairs and Development team runs the Cornell Crowdfunding campaigns from Nov. 1 to Dec. 6. 

Crowdfunding raises money from donors to fund student organizations and project teams. According to Jon Gregory, the Associate Director for Donor Participation and College and Unit Partnerships at Cornell University, Cornell was an early adopter of the crowdfunding model in higher education. 

“Higher education started to embrace the benefits of crowdfunding in 2012,” Gregory said. “Cornell University was an early adopter and has since become a benchmark institution that other universities model their crowdfunding approach after.”

Since launching the first crowdfunding pilot program in 2013, crowdfunding has supported more than 200 project teams at Cornell and helped them raise $2.5 million dollars from over 14,000 donors.

Before launching their project on the crowdfunding platform, teams must apply during the application cycle which opens after students return to campus in August and closes in early October. All project teams must have an initial goal of raising $5,000, though they can raise more, and must have a Cornell sponsor — either a college or unit faculty or staff member — to supervise their use of the funds.

Once accepted, project teams are paired with an alumni affairs and a development liaison, who is a member of the Cornell Crowdfunding team. Through the liaison, project members receive training on how to successfully build and advertise their campaign. 

This year, 27 projects are being funded through crowdfunding, an increase from 17 last year. Ranging from topics about water irrigation systems to clothing rental services, projects rely on the money they receive through crowdfunding to finance their specific needs, such as equipment for technologically-based projects or to cover expenses on international trips.

One longtime crowdfunding team is The Cornell Speech and Debate Society, which teaches public speaking skills and fields teams in competitive speech and debate competitions across the world. This year, CSDS is looking to raise $25,000, which will subsidize the costs of its competitive and educational programs everywhere from Ithaca to Vietnam.

“It’s really heartwarming to see that there are people who have had CSDS really help them in their careers and grow as people,” said Kira Weinberger, vice president of external relations for CSDS. “Public speaking can be hard and [CSDS] really helped people grow into who they are as a person and grow their skills.”

Engineers in Action — a project team focused on constructing pedestrian bridges in impoverished communities — also intends to use funds raised through crowdfunding to assist with travel expenses. After two years of not being able to travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EIA hopes to send Cornell students to the Kingdom of Eswatini and Bolivia this summer.

“We focus on ending rural isolation in different communities around the world. What we’re doing with our crowdfunding campaign is raising money to have funds both for our own project team but also to help send travelers to these countries to build the pedestrian footbridges,” said Newt Powers, the project manager for EIA.  

In order to raise money, teams encourage their members to reach out to as many people as they can through email or phone calls. CUAUV, the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle project team which designs and builds robotic submarines, is using social media to promote its crowdfunding campaign. The funds they raise will support the construction of their submarines and their travel to AUVSI’s international RoboSub Competition in the summer.

CUAUV plans on using social media platforms, such as Instagram and LinkedIn, in order to make more people aware of their campaign. 

“We get a lot of community support and it’s really nice to see that a lot of people are interested in supporting what we’re trying to do,” said Ashley Cooray, a business subteam leader for CUAUV. “Crowdfunding has been such a huge support that has allowed us to do such amazing and wonderful things.”

A unique benefit of Cornell Crowdfunding is how it enables teams to reach a wider audience outside team members’ friends and family. The platform website is organized to list the different projects collecting funds, their individual goals, how much they have currently raised, a donor wall listing the names of those who have contributed, and statements about each project’s goals.  

AguaClara, a project dedicated to developing sustainable water treatment technology and bringing clean and safe drinking water to places where water treatment is not available, is using crowdfunding to show its campaign to more people. 

“I really appreciate [crowdfunding] because it gets the community together, and it raises awareness of the project team,” said Emily Sine, the lead of the Public Relations subteam for AguaClara. “It seems to be a really good and easy way to get funding for the project team and be able to reach a lot of different people and not just one donor.”

Cornell alumni who have previously been members of project teams are often enthusiastic contributors to crowdfunding each year. 

“I think one of our biggest sources of funding is alumni because they’ve been on the team before and know what it’s like,” Cooray said. “They’re really eager to help us out especially since they know how impactful the experience can be.”

Cornell Crowdfunding provides students with opportunities to participate in unique experiences that go beyond typical classroom projects, leaving lasting impacts on the communities they help.

“Crowdfunding has proven to be an effective tool in growing alumni engagement, providing great education about the power and process of philanthropy within our campus community, and has inspired thousands of donors to help our students make a difference through their innovative projects,” Gregory wrote.